By Tom Clarke, Director of Campaigns at the Human Rights Law Centre.
This month marked two important anniversaries for our region, but one is likely to go largely unmentioned in Australia.
The UN sponsored ballot held in August 1999 confirmed that the vast majority of the Timorese people wanted to embrace the future as an independent nation. It was an amazing moment in history – 24 years of brutal occupation by the Indonesian military that resulted in the death of over 200,000 people, was coming to an end.
During the decades leading up to the ballot, Australian Governments had either turned a blind eye to the human rights atrocities, or worse, at times had actually aided and abetted the Indonesian military in its crimes. But the events of 1999 prompted the Howard Government, with the blessing of the international community, to do a policy U-turn and by the end of September Australia was leading the peacekeeping force deployed to Timor to help the fledgling nation find its feet.
Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was in Dili this week to mark the 20th anniversary and celebrate the recent ratification of a new treaty to finally set permanent maritime boundaries in the Timor Sea.
The celebrations will be tainted of course by the fact that the Australian Government had been short-changing the Timorese out of billions of dollars in oil and gas revenue for years and it has ruled out any compensation for the depleted fields that it now concedes belong to East Timor. Awkwardly for Morrison, prominent figures, including former Presidents of Timor, Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta, are also urging him to shut down the outrageous prosecution of Witness K and his lawyer Bernard Collaery – two people who helped to expose the underhanded tactics the Australian Government used to pilfer Timor’s oil and gas, namely the bugging of the Timorese cabinet room.
But despite that particular sordid affair of lies, spies and stolen oil, the 20th anniversary is a positive milestone that should be celebrated for so many reasons.
The ballot came with many risks and it wasn’t without bloodshed, but it was a prime example of the international community recognising an injustice and stepping up in an attempt to help ensure a group of people had a chance to determine their own future.
This is something that has been denied to another group of people very nearby.
This month marked another anniversary. One that also involved a ballot, but in this case it was an absolute sham. On 2 August 1969, the ‘Act of Free Choice’ or the ‘Act of No Choice’ as it would later be dubbed, was held in an attempt to settle the conflict in West Papua. Having deemed the Papuans too ‘primitive’ for democracy, the Indonesian authorities picked just 1,024 people to participate in the vote on behalf of nearly one million people.
An Australian journalist, Hugh Lunn, witnessed participants being beaten and told that their tongues would be cut out if they voted to leave Indonesia. Not surprisingly, they voted to remain part of Indonesia.
Two Papuan activists, Clement Ronawery and Willem Zonggonau, tried to flee to New York to present the UN with evidence of the scandalous vote, but Australian authorities shamefully intercepted them and detained them on Manus Island.
In the decades that have followed, the Indonesian military has continued to commit human rights atrocities. People are killed, people are tortured, political leaders are assassinated. Basic human rights are severely and routinely curtailed. As such, tensions are still running high.
Right now in West Papua, protests are being violently suppressed, internet access is denied, and what is effectively a ban on international journalists prevents the world from seeing the extent of what is going on.
This is happening a stone’s throw from Australia’s shores, but you are unlikely to hear a peep from Prime Minister Morrison or any of his Ministers. For, just as was the case with East Timor, successive Australian Governments have simply turned a blind eye to the atrocities – too craven to rock the boat.
In 1999, it was the huge surge in public interest in East Timor’s ballot and then the outcry about the unfolding violence, which ultimately prompted the Howard Government to change tack and finally do the right thing.
The Australian Government has a unique relationship with Indonesia and is extremely well placed to push for positive change. There’s much it could do.
For a start, it could insist that journalists and independent human rights monitors are given immediate and unfettered access to West Papua. It could use its voice at the UN to agitate for a real referendum to be held to give the Papuan people a genuine say about their own destiny. Further, by reviewing Australian cooperation with and support for Indonesia’s military and police forces, it could ensure we are not in any way complicit with the human rights abuses taking place.
Such leadership doesn’t need to come only from the top either, nor has it in the past.
In the late 1940s a boycott led by the Australian Waterside Workers' Federation and supported by 30 other Australian trade unions immobilised 559 ships that were meant to supply the Dutch effort to quash the Indonesian independence movement.
It was actions like this, along with advocacy from the Chifley Government, that led Australia to be recognised as the “midwife” of the Indonesian Republic. We are and can continue to be a good friend of Indonesia, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away from the hard conversations or shy away from taking a principled stand when required.
It’s time Australians – citizens and politicians alike – paid more attention to our region and what we could do to better promote and protect human rights.
We’ve stepped up before in times of need and because of it, the Timorese people have enjoyed 20 years of freedom. However, the people of West Papua are still bleeding.